Bliss was Peter Carey’s breakthrough novel; then an award-winning film by Ray Lawrence; and now Brett Dean’s debut opera.
The Grawemeyer award winner was actually invited to tackle the work in 1999 by Simone Young as she began her brief musical directorship of Opera Australia.
Now she’ll honour her invitation with a second production in Hamburg.
Fortunately, her successor, the late Richard Hickox carried the commission forward, and would have conducted the premiere. Instead, Elgar Howarth came from Britain to marshall large orchestral forces. He’ll repeat the experience at the Edinburgh Festival.
Arguably, this Anglicisation – especially the libretto from the ENO’s Amanda Holden – has damped down the surreal in this tale of an ad-man who has an out-of-body experience following a heart attack. Now Harry Joy can see clearly the heartlessness, greed and cancer-causing industries that he’s worked for; then find Bliss with the hippies in the rain-forest.
En route, Joy’s family commit him; and in Bedlam the Antipodean tensions are apparent. Dean’s dense orchestration internalises the madness brilliantly. Then the inmates step outside themselves to chorus: “We languish here in dark perdition, victims of the world’s ambition.” Oh dear.
Later in that scene, though, the three women in his life sing for Joy’s soul. It’s Dean’s finest piece of vocal writing in an opera who’s strength is his intensely programmatic orchestration.
And that intensity is matched by Brian Thomson’s astounding set – three walls of LED lights that instantly capture mood and set changes, heartbeats and advertising slogans in ways that seemed eyeball-gougingly impossible.
Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright sings a tough score with charm.